Does R.M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island illustrate a desire to preserve British supremacy and identity abroad?

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photo credit: Gwydion M. Williams via photopin cc
photo credit: Gwydion M. Williams via photopin cc

R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island was published in 1858, during the apex of global British imperialism. Mackenzie rightfully points out that imperialism was more than a set of economic, political and military phenomena, “it was a habit of mind, a dominant idea in the era of European world supremacy which had widespread intellectual, cultural and technical expressions” (‘Empire of Nature’ ix). Therefore, we understand why a British, Victorian writer, such as Ballantyne, would be motivated to engage with imperialist notions of preserving British supremacy and identity abroad. Much of the narrative illustrates Ralph, Jack and Peterkin’s need to create a ‘Little England’ abroad, and their adherence to stereotypically British qualities of industriousness and bravery. Moreover, we bear witness to their sense of superiority as a result of their nationality, a celebration of British codes of honour and approbation of Christianity (the dominant religion in Britain during the Victorian period) as the ‘proper’ faith.

However, I believe there are suggestions of a critical and questioning voice. Ballantyne investigates maintaining British identity and supremacy abroad, but also interrogates this ingrained persona and sense of authority. There are stereotypical depictions of inferior, ‘savage’ natives alongside challenges to these typecasts. Ralph reflects insightfully on the similarities between the natives, British people and the European pirates. Consequently, this essay explores how The Coral Island is not merely a conventional Victorian boys’ adventure story, assuming a wholly imperial outlook. Admittedly, the boys, pirates and missionaries frequently convey a discriminatory attitude. Nevertheless, I intend to show how these opinions are also interrogated by the narrator. I believe we encounter reservations regarding the legitimacy of British supremacy and anxiety about maintaining British identity abroad during the Victorian period. For me, Ballantyne’s novel possesses a modern interior within a traditional shell.

At its height, the British Empire was “a global sprawl of hubris, the world map flushed pink” (Boehmer 13). Although Europe’s attempt to cast its influence upon other countries goes back through history, it was not until “the late nineteenth century that the economic supremacy and political authority of Europe, and in particular Britain, became global” (Boehmer 28).  During this time, the British abroad “preserved their identity amidst alien creatures by adhering to the fashions, customs and idiosyncrasies of home” (Street 30). Indeed, when Ralph, Jack and Peterkin are shipwrecked in the South Pacific, they immediately begin building and exploring “like little colonial officers in the making” (Boehmer 38). They endeavour to create a ‘Little England’ to preserve their culturally constructed, British identity abroad. They continue to have three set meals a day, keep the Sabbath as a day of rest (Ballantyne 41) and bathe in the Water Garden every morning (Ballantyne 50). Ralph also assembles an aquarium (Ballantyne 87) and they build a boat (Ballantyne 89). These endeavours adhere to socially conditioned notions of proper British behaviour in young boys at home and abroad. Coconut milk is even experienced through a British lens, being “the likest thing to lemonade [Ralph] ever tasted” (Ballantyne 24). On the first night they erect a “rustic bower…there was no absolute necessity for this…but we were so little used to sleeping in the open air” (Ballantyne 26).  I argue it is fair for them to want to maintain their sense of national identity in such challenging circumstances. However, it becomes problematic when the foundations of that identity are exposed as unstable and supremacy is based purely on nationality.

As the narrative moves forward the boys become increasingly accustomed to island life and I argue they ‘go native’, emphasizing undercurrents of a modern voice. Certain British habits seem out of place in the island context.  The idealized exotic experience at the start, where Ralph explains their meals are “a profusion spread out before us that we frequently knew not with which dainties to begin” (Ballantyne 106), is culinary excess. ‘Dainties’ feminises the boys and makes them appear disengaged with reality. Routines evocative of home are a dark realisation that they are in “a rather uncomfortable position” (Ballantyne 16). However, the boys gradually move away from a desire to preserve their home comforts abroad. They contemplate building a house but have “so great an affection for the bower” (Ballantyne 135), they determine to remain in the structure resembling those in which the natives live. The boys also “become so expert in the use of [their] sling and bow and spear” (Ballantyne 135), disregarding the newfound gun which has no use without proper ammunition. The gun, a symbol of imperial power and supremacy, is shown to be ineffective and inappropriate on the island. By modifying their values, we gradually see their identities transform. Though they never entirely part with a sense of British identity and superiority, Ballantyne tests the boundaries and foundations of these beliefs.

The right to conquer other people and their land was key within the ethos of Victorian global imperialism. Bratton correctly explains how ‘Britishness’ was used as “a moral and ethical baseline and therefore a starting point for the justification of Empire” (78). I argue Ralph’s affinity with this philosophy is at the very core of his identity before and initially after he is shipwrecked on the Coral Island. He admits “roving has always been, and still is, my ruling passion… the very sunshine of my existence” (Ballantyne 5). Once they are shipwrecked he claims “we saw our kingdom lying, as it were, like a map around us” (Ballantyne 39). Peterkin also initially believes “we’ve got an island to ourselves. We’ll take possession in the name of the King” (Ballantyne 16). He assumes they will rise to the top of affairs because “white men always do in savage countries” (Ballantyne 16). The boys still perceive it as “our Coral Island” (Ballantyne 107), even if natives live there, illustrating their inherent sense of British supremacy abroad. Consequently, we recognise the attitude prevalent among British imperialists who felt it was their right to colonise whatever and wherever they saw fit.

However, Ralph comes to contemplate his British identity, his intrinsic sense of supremacy. The myths of ‘roving’ and conquering are transformed into brutal and enlightening realities. Whilst fishing they have a dangerous encounter with a shark, accentuating that however much they try to maintain their supremacy over the land, natural and unknown elements of the environment cannot always be controlled. Descriptions of “wonderful creatures…interesting lands and strange people” (7) are brought vividly to life, become less theoretical and less able to control. So, although we cannot regard Ballantyne as completely untainted by notions of British supremacy because of the period in which he was writing, he is clearly tapping into anxieties over such assertions which I believe bestows the novel with modern features.

The language used to describe the native communities as inferior is problematic for us as modern readers. Nevertheless, we should remember that theories of ‘primitive’ people being subordinate existed before imperialism, and while imperialism used these claims as justification for taking land, the theories were not new (Street 5). Indeed, what requires closer examination is how Ballantyne manipulates such assumptions, recognising the bravery in such literary challenges. I believe he exposes the supposedly concrete peripheries of identity that separate characteristics of the British boys, European pirates and Polynesian natives, as essentially inconclusive and interchangeable.

Though not all the pirates are British, some of them are which conveys how supremacy can be destructive. When their ship can’t trade she takes by force, but takes by force “in preference” (Ballantyne 170). The captain of the pirate ship favours the Christian missionaries because “they can tame the savages better than anyone else” (Ballantyne 171), yet Ralph wonders “whether it were possible for any missionary to tame him” (Ballantyne 171). Bloody-Bill advocates Christianity replacing native religion, then the natives “give over their cruel ways, and are safe to be trusted” (Ballantyne 175), an interesting accusation given how Bill conveys their preference for pillaging rather than morally trading. By emphasizing their lack of ethics, he undermines all accusations of natives being cruel and dishonest. Moreover, when Ralph sees a giant eel thrust its head above the water, Bloody Bill persuades him that it eats new-born babies, a stereotypically mythical and unsupported claim regarding native religion. Yet the animal is tame enough to let a child stroke its head, even though Bill tells him “it’s a fact” (Ballantyne 183), further weakening his claims. Although by the mid-nineteenth century a great deal was known about the South Pacific, it remained “remote and inaccessible, an inviting space for writers of fiction to fill and exploit” (Edmond 18). As a result, popular or exotic fiction distorted images of ‘primitive’ peoples, based on contemporary scientific theories, since its primary aim was to sell to the masses. Unremarkable stories would not lead to success in a time when the exotic boys’ adventure story was flourishing. Consequently, Ballantyne would have been aware of the literary requirements within his market and he does present us with stereotypes of natives, British and pirates, yet more importantly, he poses challenges to these stereotypes. Even though Bloody Bill’s stories of ‘truth’ adhere to typecasts, they also appear unrealistic and therefore show Ballantyne challenging these claims as absolute or fixed. Ralph watches the native children on the beach and notices how “the games of those little savages should be so like to our own, although they had never seen us play” (Ballantyne 185), thus opposing his inbuilt sense of superiority. By having the boys and natives take part in and enjoy the same activities, Ballantyne offers progressive commentary on their habits as similar and their subsequent identities as relatable, thus breaking down notions of characteristics based on cultural construction or nationality.

The conventional British hero or gentleman, a key character in the propaganda of empire building, is also challenged. Initially, Ralph describes Jack as “handsome, good humoured…[with a] good education, clever, hearty and lion like in his actions… but quiet in disposition” (Ballantyne 9). Essentially, the narrator perceives him to be the perfect British gentleman, a figure expected to have physical courage, heart and resourcefulness. Yet while Jack’s education and being “a great reader of books of travel and adventure” (23) is praised by Ballantyne and serves its own purpose in making reading appear desirable, his supposedly noble attitude is I believe, insincere, due to his increasingly impulsive nature. Jack “was of that disposition which will not be conquered” (Ballantyne 104), and Stephen Humphries remarks how many children clearly welcomed “colourful stories of heroism and national glory and imperial celebrations” (qtd. in Mackenzie ‘Imperialism and Popular Culture’ 6). However, I argue Jack is conquered by his own emotions and at times transgresses from appearing as the gentleman he aims to be, to acting like the ‘savage’ natives he condemns. He is driven by a desire to fulfil the role previously assigned to him, as the romantic or chivalrous hero and leader, a role carved out through literature and the public school which was “the central institution of consolidation of Victorian ideology” (Bratton 73). Ballantyne’s novel acknowledges such fiction as influential, yet he questions assumptions about inbuilt heroism and British supremacy.

Indeed, though motivated by a sense of duty, the language used to describe Jack’s leaping movements when he intervenes in the native brawl are not far from Ralph’s observations of the natives who “had to bound, stoop and leap” (Ballantyne 138). Jack’s “strong frame trembled with emotion…[he] uttered a yell that rang like a death shriek…with one bound he leaped over a preciple…with a look of fury” (Ballantyne 141). The “sweeping fury” (Ballantyne 143) of Jack shows how violence is inherent within the natives and the British. I agree with Edmond’s claim that “for all his magnificent courage in the face of overwhelming odds, the text registers something disturbing about the manner of Jack’s victory” (151). Jack asserts they have “become champions for this girl once before, it behoves us, as true knights, not to rest until we set her free” (Ballantyne 221), thus placing himself within the tradition of heroic code. He even cites “heroes in all the story books” (Ballantyne 221) as his motivation. Yet, he does not love Avatea (who is engaged to another man) and she is shown to be passive, “seemingly quite uninterested in all that was going on” (Ballantyne 246), further undermining the heroic knight and devoted maiden myth. Moreover, Jack says “I am not afraid to die in a good cause” (Ballantyne 238), an assertion fitting to a ‘hero’, yet Jack criticises the natives for holding human life “in so very slight esteem” (Ballantyne 192). Therefore, by demonstrating similar values preserved by the natives and British, Ballantyne subtly comments on the subjectivity of heroism. Jack’s desire to be a hero, based on personal motivation, exposes the heroic code (promoted through public school) as fraudulent because of its artificiality. The conventional qualities of the British ‘gentleman’ and the ‘savage’ native are revealed as unreliable and vulnerable. Natives, who supposedly have no sense of duty, are set against Jack’s own failings and feelings of supremacy.

Edmond argues “the public school ideal central to the imperial project is itself vulnerable to regressing and turning savage in colonial settings” (152). Also, Street believes the novel “exactly reproduces the popular image of native life as anarchical” (131) and is a “caricature of the lack of order in primitive society” (131). I disagree with these claims and maintain Ballantyne challenges the popular image of native life as anarchical by suggesting everybody has the capacity for violence, rather than violence being answerable to colonial settings. The native Romata shows violence when he strikes a man so hard that his eyes fall out (Ballantyne 191). However, Jack pushes a telescope down Peterkin’s throat following the shipwreck and at one point tries to use him as a raft, actions taking place before encountering any natives. The natives are violent when dealing with enemies, qualities not peculiar to their nationality, yet they are deemed ‘savage’ by the boys, pirates and missionaries. Some are unnecessarily violent, but most are not. Before meeting the natives, Ralph is certain, should the island be inhabited, “we should be roasted alive and eaten” (Ballantyne 15) and while the boys do witness cannibalism, it is ceremonial rather than routine. Many of the accounts of cannibalism come from Bloody Bill, who commits more atrocities than he condemns. Ralph becomes more insightful regarding the connections between humans rather than the differences between culturally constructed identities as a result of nationality. Therefore, I argue the novel is not the simple caricature affirmed by Street.

A most poignant example of Ballantyne’s insightful commentary is the “superannuated wild cat” (79) scene. The boys’ first instinct is to fire an arrow at the helpless animal, which is what they plan to do if they encounter any natives. Yet, as soon as Peterkin tries to communicate with the cat, “all signs of anger fled…[and] it allowed itself to be stroked…purring extremely loudly” (Ballantyne 79). Similarly, the boys’ are initially frightened of the natives, believing they are all “fierce cannibals [who] have little respect for strangers” (Ballantyne 137). After the beach battle, the natives shake the boys’ hands out of respect (Ballantyne 143) and the boys subsequently rub noses with them (Ballantyne 148). I argue Peterkin’s subsequent comment that the animal is “no more a wild cat than I am” (Ballantyne 79) is symbolic of the potential understanding between the boys and natives. The affection Peterkin desires from the animal resembles the boys’ desire for acceptance from the natives, illustrating how Ballantyne is blurring boundaries of supremacy and subordination.

Ballantyne was writing within a Victorian imperial context. Therefore, the extent to which he puts forward a questioning, modern voice needs to be analysed within its contemporary circumstance. Indeed, preserving British identity and supremacy abroad was essential to the greater imperial project and he certainly engages with these philosophies. However, while he connects with them, he also investigates these national assumptions. The boys never completely lose their desire to preserve British supremacy and identity abroad, but they do question this desire, which is why I argue the novel should be regarded as more radical than previously deemed. The binaries of ‘savage’ native and ‘civilised’ British are blurred and contested through the exploration of cultural connections and similarities. The novel explores the ambiguous space between these dualistic concepts, questioning assumptions of British supremacy and native inferiority. It also challenges the very constitution of the male ‘hero’ essential to British imperial identity, which for me, makes it an illuminating and progressive ‘boys adventure’ novel.

Works Cited

Ballantyne, R.M. The Coral Island. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1858. Print.

Bratton, J.S. ‘Of England, Home and Duty: The Image of England in Victorian and          Edwardian Juvenile Fiction’. Imperialism and Popular Culture. Ed. John M                    Mackenzie. New Hampshire: Manchester UP, 1986. 73-94. Print.

Edmond, Rod. Introduction. Representing the South Pacific: Colonial Discourse from Cook         to Gauguin. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1997. 1-23. Print.

— ‘Trade and Adventure’. Representing the South Pacific: Colonial Discourse from Cook to         Gauguin. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1997. 130-160. Print.

Mackenzie, John M. Introduction. The Empire of Nature. Ed. John M. Mackenzie. New York:      Manchester UP, 1988.  ix. Print.

Humphries, Stephen. Introduction by John M. Mackenzie. Imperialism and Popular Culture.        Ed. John M Mackenzie. New Hampshire: Manchester UP, 1986. 1-17. Print.

Street, Brian V. ‘Literary Themes and Anthropological Writings’. The Savage in Literature:          Representations of ‘Primitive’ Society in English Fiction 1858-1920. London:    Routledge and Kegan. 1-18. Print.

—‘Evolution and Race in Popular Literature: Classification: Scientific and Fictitious’. The            Savage in Literature: Representations of ‘Primitive’ Society in English Fiction 1858-   1920. London: Routledge and Kegan. 49-78. Print.

—‘The English Abroad’. The Savage in Literature: Representations of ‘Primitive’ Society in           English Fiction 1858-1920. London: Routledge and Kegan. 18-49. Print.

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